Shadows of race and religion over this Merdeka
By Zan Azlee
I make a lot of documentaries that promote multiculturalism, pluralism and understanding of ethnicities and religions. I also regularly travel around the country (and also outside of the country) screening my work and talking about it with the objective of promoting just that. I like that my journalism work has evolved over the years to this.
Anyway, recently, I was in Kelantan where I was invited by University Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) to give a few talks in schools and colleges in the state related to “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE). I wasn’t the only one. There were a few very respected speakers from agencies like the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism (SEARCCT) and from UMK too.
The purpose of these talks was to engage communities and encourage an exchange of thoughts and opinions. The talks went well as they usually do. But during the second and last day, at the end of the question-and-answer session, a religious teacher at a college in Pengkalan Chepa had a question.
He started by saying, “As we are all aware, Islam is the best religion for all time and for all human beings.” And then he goes into his question. His question was about the definition of Countering Violent Extremism and transnational crime. But his question isn’t the point. The point is that the ustaz wasn’t there to engage in discourse.
This was clearly shown in his opening statement. So no matter what I or any of the speakers say in response to his question, it will never really be a civil and understanding discourse. He already stated his outlook at the very beginning. So basically, there is no open mind to accepting different ideas and beliefs.
This got me thinking that all this so-called change that has happened in Malaysia might just be all nothing. “Malaysia Baru” is just a name but not a reality. Many Malaysians thought that the last general election meant that we would be moving forward and progressing as a society. But I guess this isn’t very true.
In these past few days, we’ve heard society leaders, political observers and analysts mention that the Pakatan Harapan government needs to move away from arguing about race and religion and instead focus more on bread-and-butter issues like the economy and fixing the key institutions.
Look, I agree that the government needs to focus on bread-and-butter issues. But none of that is going to have any lasting effect if the race and religion issue isn’t handled at all. Everything in Malaysia is laced with race and religion and especially so when it comes to bread-and-butter issues.
Can you tell me honestly that the economy in Malaysia is not affected by race at all? And what about education? No influence of race and religion at all there, you think? How about job opportunities and career advancements? Do race and religion play any role in looking for jobs in Malaysia? Let’s see your answers in the comments section.
I think that we need to reform people like the ustaz from my anecdote above. The Harapan government definitely needs to address race and religion issues that we suffer from. Now hear me out. They need to address it properly in order to eliminate these problems and not partake in abusing them for their own political advantage themselves.
At the moment, it would seem even Harapan has decided to play the race politics card. We can see that happening when it comes to the Zakir Naik issue. The non-Malay politicians will use it to stoke the anger and support of the non-Malays while the Malay politicians will do the same with the Malays.
Then there is the khat issue. It’s the same with Zakir Naik. It is all politicised by the politicians in order to divide and conquer – the method of governing that Malaysians are so familiar with and, it seems, the only way politicians know how to govern. We would expect BN (or what is left of it) to play this game but we never wanted Harapan to do it too.
Instead of engaging in the same game, the government needs to respond in a more inclusive and united manner. You can’t have half of the Harapan leaders staying silent (i.e: supporting) Zakir Naik’s hate speech and wanting him to remain while the other half does not stand for it and want him deported.
Who are the halves? One half is Malay and the other half isn’t. Am I right? So there you go. Race and religion will always be issues. Human rights activist and lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan said it best in a recent tweet when she said that Malaysia needs more statesmen who think of the future of the country instead of poilticians who only think of the next election.
I agree with Ambiga. Unfortunately, now that Harapan has tasted power, we are starting to see how many of them are already falling victim to wanting to stay in power at all cost. It would seem like they prioritise staying in power and winning the next election more than they do the people they represent.
It can be quite downputting. But, I also want to pick another tweet by Ambiga in which she says that “Nobody said change was going to be easy”. This is a challenge for the Malaysian people. We started the change and now we need to persevere and make sure the change is followed through.
Malaysia is bigger than any politician or political party. We proved that in the last general election when brought down a government that was in power for more than six decades. So we know we can do it again if we think that the people in power are not serving the interests of Malaysians. So keep the faith and happy Merdeka to all Malaysians.
ZAN AZLEE is a writer, documentary film-maker, journalist and academic. He has waited so long for a change in the system and is not willing to settle for a half-past-six change.
[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]
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